Solomon Burke — “the King of rock ‘n soul” — remains one of the last great exponents of the pinnacle of Western civilization known as soul music. Burke is the surprise hero of Peter Guralnick’s Sweet Soul Music, who is the subject of a brilliant chapter of that magnificent book. I dragged Rocket Man to see Burke perform at a private fundraising concert at the Fine Line club one evening in Minneapolis in 1990 or so. Guralnick borrows the judgment of Atlantic Records principal Jerry Wexler (quoted below) to the effect that Burke is the best soul singer ever when singing with a borrowed band, which is what he had that night. It was an unforgettable show.
Burke will be performing in Duluth next weekend at the Bayfront Blues Festival. Star Tribune music critic Chris Riemenschneider has a long profile of Burke in today’s paper: “Soul man Solomon Burke was lost, but now he’s found.” Ladies and gentlemen, in the interest of history I’m taking the liberty of pasting in Riemenschneider’s profile below so that we can continue to return to it after the Star Tribune makes it inaccessible:
Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, Elvis Costello, Brian Wilson and Tom Waits all lined up to give him one of their songs.
Mick Jagger openly copied him in the early days of the Rolling Stones.
Even Atlantic Records mogul Jerry Wexler — who worked with Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin and Otis Redding — had this to say when asked to name the greatest of the great soul singers: “Solomon Burke with a borrowed band.”
For most of the past 30 years, though, even people who remembered the so-called “king of rock ‘n’ soul” were uncertain he was still alive.
“I’m still going, just like that little Energizer bunny,” said Burke, 65, who will perform Saturday at Duluth’s Bayfront Blues Fest — the site of his last Minnesota appearance in 1995.
Talking by phone two weeks ago from London, where he was recording a new album with British music and TV star Jools Holland, the singer happily discussed his rebounding career, from his early-’60s hits with Atlantic, including “Cry to Me” and “Everybody Needs Somebody to Love” to his 2002 comeback album, aptly named “Don’t Give Up on Me.”
Interviewing Solomon Burke is not like talking with any other singer. For starters, he does a lot of the questioning: “How’s your family? How’s the weather there? How can we improve the show?”
Equally charming and frustrating, the singer also tends to skip around answers to some of the harder questions with riddling, sermon-like replies.
Questions such as “Where were you for the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s?”
“I just moved in another direction of my life,” he said. “I was working very hard to do the things necessary to make life work.”
Burke never fully left the music business, but by the 1970s he had cast aside several managers and record labels that he felt never treated him fairly. Being self-managed and recording without the help of labels through the ’70s and ’80s led to lingering fame. His 300-pound frame, which at times has been closer to 400, also kept him from touring more.
In many ways, Burke’s career foreshadowed that of Minneapolis’s own hesitant star, Prince — right down to spirituality’s role in sidetracking his fame.
Dubbed “the kid preacher” at age 12 while growing up in Philadelphia, Burke still preaches. He has led revival-like gatherings in the Los Angeles area for 30-some years now. He also co-owns a chain of mortuaries, which kept him occupied in down years.
Burke had good reason to pursue other income streams: He has been married three times and has amassed a staggeringly large family, with 21 children, 77 grandchildren and “several more grandkids in the works,” he said proudly.
“Church and family have always come first for me,” he said. He stopped short of saying those things got in the way of his music career, though.
“I was working very hard, recording all the time. The Lord just had other plans for me.”
The scarcity of his performances in the ’80s and ’90s was made evident when Burke was asked if he remembered his 1995 Bayfront appearance.
“Are you kidding? What a show,” he replied. “The people were so amazing to stay there in the rain and stay through my show. So I’m looking forward to seeing the wonderful people there again. Come rain or shine and the Lord’s will, we’re gonna do it again.”
The singer points to a gig on New Year’s Eve 1999 as the point when things finally started going right again in his music career: A concert promoter in Italy called with a last-minute offer, not knowing that a U.S. promoter had just canceled his show for that night.
“He said, ‘Whatever they’re paying you, I’ll double it,’ ” said Burke, who has long been known as a keen wheeler and dealer. “Sometimes in life you just shut up and listen to the Lord’s will, and this was one of those times. So I listened, and then I said, ‘Triple it.’ ”
A day after returning from the Italy gig, he said, he was asked to perform at the Vatican for Pope John Paul II’s Family Jubilee. Burke said, without any hint of joking, that the late pope “really wanted to hear me sing ‘Everybody Needs Somebody to Love.’ ”
Burke did laugh, however, when he said his 21 kids “fit the Holy Father’s idea of a family jubilee.”
Shortly after playing at the Vatican, Burke learned that he was nominated for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. His version of “Everybody Needs Somebody” during the 2001 induction ceremony stole the limelight from Aerosmith and Steely Dan and clearly put him back on the map.
Burke recalled getting approached by Andy Kaulkin, president of the punk label Epitaph Records, who wanted the singer to record for the Mississippi-based Epitaph subsidiary Fat Possum Records.
“I heard him say Fat Possums, and I thought it was a football team or something like that,” Burke said, laughing.
When Kaulkin told him his idea for an album — to have some of the most famous singer-songwriters of all time contribute songs — Burke was equally skeptical.
“I said, ‘How many of these stars do you know?’ And Andy said, ‘Well, none.’ I thought, ‘Oh, this is gonna be great.’ ”
Kaulkin didn’t have any trouble landing unreleased songs from Dylan, Morrison, et al., which were used for the “Don’t Give Up on Me” album. Singer-songwriter Joe Henry produced the CD, which earned glowing reviews and went on to win Burke his first Grammy Award.
Earlier this year, Burke released another album, “Make Do With What You Got” on the Shout! Factory label with producer Don Was. This one is more closely patterned after his classic recordings and live shows, with a high-energy horn section and well-known compositions by Dylan (“What Good Am I?”) and the Band (“It Makes No Difference”).
One thing the recent albums have in common, though, is the way they renewed the debate about Burke’s being one of the greatest unsung singers.
“I feel rewarded to hear that,” he said, “but the greatest singers to me are Al Green, Luther Vandross,
James Brown, Sam Cooke, Jackie Wilson and a lot of guys not with us.”
But doesn’t he wish he could have at least enjoyed the full careers that those late artists had in their lifetimes?
“I don’t have any regrets,” Burke said firmly. “The only thing in life that I wish could have been different is that each of my 21 children had been twins, because they’re all so wonderful.”
Is this guy amazing, or what?